Posts Tagged ‘Al Qaeda’

Slightly late posting of a new piece for the Telegraph which was written a little while back and finally got up last week. I am not in total agreement with the title chosen by the editors which explicitly suggests that the sectarianism was something linked to Kashmir which was not my intent. My point, which I hope the article shows, was to say that violence and militancy in South Asia tends to resonate in the UK.

Sectarian violence in Kashmir is increasingly spilling over onto the streets of Britain

An Indian policeman fires tear gas shells towards the demonstrators during an anti-India protest in Srinagar, October 4, 2016
An Indian policeman fires tear gas shells towards the demonstrators during an anti-India protest in Srinagar, October 4, 2016 Credit: Danish Ismail/Reuters

 

Two of the world’s nuclear powers almost went to war recently to little notice in the UK. And yet the group accused of being the spark for the violence and the countries involved are ones with deep historical links to this country.

Violence in South Asia has a habit of resonating in Britain, be it in the form intra-communitarian clashes, terrorist violence or familial murder. And while it is unclear in what way the current clashes in Kashmir will resonate, Britain’s historical connection with South Asia mean that rising violence and sectarianism over there will have an impact here.

The group that stands accused of being behind the recent cross-border incursions from Pakistan into India that generated a violent ‘surgical’ response by India is Jaish-e-Mohammed (the army of Mohammed) a group established in the late 1990s by Maulana Masood Azhar. A long-standing jihadist and Kashmiri independence ideologue, Masood Azhar has a history of links to the UK.

In 1993, when he was involved in a precursor group called Hizbul Mujahedeen, he came on a fundraising tour of the UK, giving emotional speeches about jihad, raising money for training camps in Pakistan and recruiting young men to join his cause. His speeches were reportedly so stirring that women would take off their jewellery there and then to contribute to the cause. In 1999 he was released from captivity in India alongside Briton Omar Saeed Sheikh (a young man he knew from their time together in Hizbul Mujahedeen), an LSE graduate who went on to play an important role in his group and who currently sits on death row in Pakistan guilty of involvement in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Maulana Masood Azhar, Muslim cleric and leader of the militant group fighting in Indian-held Kashmir against Indian forces, arrives at Karachi airport in January, 2000, after being released by Indian authorities in a prisoner exchange
Maulana Masood Azhar, Muslim cleric and leader of the militant group fighting in Indian-held Kashmir against Indian forces, arrives at Karachi airport in January, 2000, after being released by Indian authorities in a prisoner exchange Credit: Athar Hussain/AP Photo

On Christmas Day 2000, Masood Azhar’s group Jaish-e-Mohammed (which he founded on his release from Indian jail) claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Srinagar that was undertaken by a Birmingham born 24 year-old using the name Mohammed Bilal. In 2005 Masood Azhar’s brother in law, Rashid Rauf, another Birmingham-born lad, took Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer around al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan as they learned how to make bombs, recorded suicide videos and prepared to launch the July 2005 attack on London on behalf of al Qaeda.

A year prior to launching his attack, Mohammed Siddique Khan attended a training camp in Pakistan at which a group of radicalised Brits learned how to make bombs and shoot guns. At night the young men would entertain themselves reading Masood Azhar’s tracts to each other around the campfire.

Rashid Rauf is escorted by police commandos during his appearance in court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 2006
Rashid Rauf is escorted by police commandos during his appearance in court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 2006 Credit: Mian Khursheed/Reuters

South Asian militancy and violence has resonated in other ways as well. In 1984 a pair of Kashmiri men living in Birmingham murdered the Indian Deputy Consul General in retaliation for the jailing of one of their leaders in India. And more recently there have been sectarian murders which have more in common with intra-ethnic hatred in South Asia than anything in the UK.

The murder of Jalal Uddin in Rochdale in February was done by a pair of angry young men, one of whom subsequently ran away to Syria to fight alongside Isil, who thought Uddin’s practice of taweez, turning pieces of the Koran into amulets, was blasphemous. A month later Bradford cab driver Tanveer Ahmed drove to Glasgow and brutally stabbed shopkeeper Asad Shah to death, apparently angered by videos he found online of Mr Shah suggesting he was the prophet.

While in the Uddin murder there was some evidence that the men had absorbed Isil ideology, it was also clear that the men’s anger against Mr Uddin’s behaviour had a deeper root. Mr Shah was a member of a minority Ahmaddiya sect, and while it seemed as though Mr Ahmed was angry about specific videos Mr Shah had put of himself online, the fact of his Ahmaddiya background played substantially into the narrative around his murder.In many ways, both the Uddin and Shah murders were a product in part of sectarian hatreds that have their roots in South Asia. The Ahmaddiya community is frequently persecuted in Pakistan, with senior figures often calling for them be declared apostates. The practice of taweez is equally controversial amongst conservative Muslims who believe the worship of amulets is a form of idolatry. Most disturbingly as Mr Ahmed was sent down to life imprisonment for the murder of Mr Shah, supporters in the public gallery chanted “god is great.” In the wake of both deaths, there were public conversations amongst Britain’s Muslim community about the practices the men were accused of being involved in, and the degree to which they might be considered properly Muslim.

Looking beyond the problem of violence and conflict with neighbouring countries, militancy and crime within the country, one of the biggest problems Pakistan currently faces is rising sectarianism. In 2010, two Ahmaddiya mosques in Lahore were targeted with bombs leading to almost 100 deaths and over a hundred injuries. On March 27 this year a suicide bomber detonated explosives at an Easter celebration in Lahore killing 75. Both attacks were claimed by militant groups and were targeting minority communities in the country. Visiting Pakistan late last year, a security official told me how one of the number one security concerns his country faced was “sectarianism.”

Seen in this light, the Shah and Uddin murders are echoes from South Asia. Narratives from the region regularly appear on Britain’s streets, be in the form of political protests marching along Whitehall, religious or political murders or terrorist plots – often linked through long-standing networks and communities that tie the UK to South Asia. Now we are seeing sectarian murders.

Politicians and militant leaders from the sub-continent have long noticed and profited from this proximity of the now long-settled South Asian communities in the UK and the sub-continent and used it as a source of fundraising and support. Violence over there tends to resonate here. And while it will be impossible and incorrect to try to cut this umbilical cord linking us together, greater attention needs to be paid to understanding how this connection is evolving.

The danger otherwise is the gradual importation of escalating violence from South Asia to the UK’s streets.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at RUSI and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

A late posting of a recent piece for my institutional home RUSI exploring the question of al Qaeda versus ISIS/Daesh/ISIL and the degree to which they are able to advance the lone actor strategy. Lots of longer form writing going on at the moment which is keeping me busy and will eventually land.

Why is Daesh Able to Inspire More Attacks Than Al-Qa’ida?

The fact that there are more and more Daesh-inspired lone-actor terrorist attacks may be the product of technological changes, rather than a different approach to terror.
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Daesh appears to have intensified its efforts to encourage individuals to carry out lone-actor terrorist attacks, as events over the weekend in the US indicate. But this trend has been observed for quite some time, and it may be the product of technological changes, rather than a different approach to terror.

The US was rocked this weekend by a series of terrorist attacks. While Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or IS) claimed responsibility for the stabbing spree in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the New York and New Jersey explosions have not yet been claimed by any terrorist group. Given the uncertainties at this stage in the investigation, it is unclear if there is any deeper meaning to this distinction, but the speed with which Daesh claimed responsibility for one terrorist attack and not the other suggests a rationale. The Minneapolis attack was an example of the lone-actor methodology that Daesh has managed to appropriate from Al-Qa’ida with a high degree of success. A key unanswered question is this: why has Daesh has proven so much more effective at delivering this sort of attack than Al-Qa’ida?

The first thing to note is that the approach which Daesh appears to be so good at promoting is not novel. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine used to advocate a similar methodological approach. It aped various prominent mainstream advertising campaigns – including Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign – and offered easily accessible attack methodologies for aspirant warriors. And there was some evidence that it worked, with the bomb recipe offered in the magazine repeatedly showing up in terrorist plots. From the limited available evidence at the moment, the latest New York bombs seem to emulate a recipe in Inspire.

Yet it was never clear that the group was able to instigate and steer such attacks. Numerous Al-Qa’ida leaders spoke of the lone-actor methodology as one that adherents in the West should copy, but very few terrorist attacks seem to have actually taken place as a result. Occasional plots seemed to hint in this direction, but it was almost impossible to draw a direct causal link between Al-Qa’ida and these attacks. And, according to one letter found in his lair in Abbottabad, Osama Bin Laden did not entirely approve of all of the various random mass murder methodologies Inspire used to offer its readers.

Fast-forward to today, and we see repeated attacks using small bombs, knives, guns and other weapons to attack innocent citizens in the West, with Daesh regularly claiming responsibility for them. And while some appear to be over-eager claims by the group – like the case of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June – in a growing number of cases there appears to be clear evidence of some sort of connection with Daesh.

Three factors appear to have changed since the heyday of Inspire magazine that may help explain Daesh’s effectiveness in inspiring lone-actor terrorist attacks.

First, the ideology that Daesh espouses comes in the wake of Al-Qa’ida and it is louder, brasher and more attractive, projecting an image of power and control of territory; markedly different to Al-Qa’ida’s image of a secretive menacing organisation.

Second, the definition of ‘terrorist attack’ has been diluted, with the range of actions that are considered terrorist attacks now broader. Whereas in the past only large-scale bomb or plane attacks would be considered terrorist attacks, now using a vehicle or knives against other citizens can constitute a terrorist attack. Furthermore, the targets have now become diffuse – cafés, churches, people’s houses,  among others, are all in the crosshairs. This means that a terror attack is no longer the complicated large-scale endeavour that it used to be. And if it is easier to carry out a terrorist attack, then there are a wider range of attacks for Daesh to be able to claim. This lower threshold is something that Daesh has eagerly embraced, in contrast to Al-Qa’ida, which has allegedly had reservations about this approach.

Third, it turns out that a number of these attacks are not actually as lone or detached as they seem prima facie. After an investigation, the German authorities uncovered clear evidence of contact with Daesh in an axe attack on a train in Wuerzburg and an attempted bombing in Ansbach in July this year. The June murder of a police officer and his girlfriend at their home in Magnaville, 55 km west of Paris, and the subsequent July murder of a priest in Rouen, as well as the attempted car bombing in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, were all linked back to the same French Daesh leader: Rachid Kassim. Previously, a network of British plotters in the Syrian city of Raqqa – Junaid Hussain, Reeyad Khan and Sally Jones – were talking and instigating various attempted attackers in the West.

In many of these cases, it was subsequently discovered that the plotters on the ground were involved in quite intense conversations with Daesh handlers or directors. Apparently using apps such as WhatsApp, Kik or Telegram, the attackers were communicating with their Daesh handlers. The Ansbach bomber, for example, was quite literally directed in his attack by his handler outside Germany. So, although the perpetrators may seem to have been alone in their actions, they both had some backing and plenty of connections.

In some ways, this is likely a product of the way we communicate these days. Daesh, therefore, appears to be in part a product of its time; the communication apps that are now available were not accessible to Al-Qa’ida when it was promoting a similar message, and Daesh’s more contemporary audience is simply using the tools in everyday life. The phenomenon also builds on what came before it: Al-Qa’ida had already started to sketch out the path of lone-actor attacks that Daesh has so eagerly embraced. And in part it is a product of a leadership in Daesh that sees value and strategy in low-grade random attacks, in contrast to Al-Qa’ida, which appears fixated on more large-scale, dramatic attacks.

Daesh has not invented a new strategy of launching attacks; what we are witnessing instead seems to be an attempt on the part of Daesh to increase the incidence of a particular form of terrorism, lone-actor terrorism, an upward trajectory that was most likely to happen anyway. Daesh’s attacks seem a product of their times, rather than a completely novel strategic approach.

New piece for an outlet to which I haven’t contributed for some time, The National Interest. This time looking at trying to explain China’s enhanced engagement and interest in Syria with Michael Clarke of Australian National University. We are hopefully working on a longer writing related project along these lines in the future, and the topic is undoubtedle one there will more on.

China Is Supporting Syria’s Regime. What Changed?

Michael Clarke | Raffaello Pantucci
Beijing’s motivations are close to home.

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On August 14, Guan Youfei, a rear admiral in China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, visited the Syrian capital of Damascus, escorted around the city under heavy guard. Guan’s visit reportedly included meetings with senior military officials and Russian officers, as well as pledges that the Chinese military would provide medical training for Syrian medical staff. The question is why China is increasing this engagement now.

Admiral Guan’s engagement contrasts with previous Chinese behavior during the Syrian crisis. While China has been one of the few powers to maintain an embassy in Damascus throughout the current crisis, Beijing’s engagements have been fairly limited, and mostly focused on attempts from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to insert itself into peace negotiations and occasional expressions of concern around individual nationals who appear on the battlefield (either as hostages or fighters). The approach has been driven by a mix of motives, including Beijing’s long-standing principle of “non-interference,” aversion to what China sees as largely Western-led regime change in the guise of humanitarian intervention and a Chinese desire to insulate its growing economic interests in the Middle East from the continuing consequences of the Arab Spring.

That dynamic may now be about to change. China has started to become a participant in the many international discussions around countering terrorism, and ISIS in particular. China has participated in the Global Counterterrorism Forum and hosted sessions about terrorists’ use of the internet, while engaging in discussions at home about contributing more to the fight against ISIS. Last year, a decision was made to alter national legislation to allow Chinese security forces to deploy abroad as part of a counterterrorism effort, and China has sought to establish overseas bases in Djibouti. In neighboring Afghanistan, it has established a new sub-regional alliance between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and China to discuss and coordinate the fight against militancy and terrorist groups in the area. All these actions highlight the degree to which China is slowly pushing its security apparatus out into the world in a more aggressive posture than before. Seen within this light, Admiral Guan’s visit to Damascus is another piece in this puzzle, and the most ambitious yet in many ways for a power that has historically preferred to play a more standoffish role in addressing hard military questions.

Looking to the Syrian context in particular, there are two major reasons for China’s apparent decision to begin playing a more forward role in engaging in Syria. One is China’s concern at the numbers and links of Uighur militants from its restive province of Xinjiang participating in the Syrian conflict. The other is its desire for geostrategic stability in the Middle East as it seeks to consummate its “One Belt, One Road” strategy.

Of particular importance on the first count is the presence of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) on the Syrian battlefield. TIP is a successor organization of sorts to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that Beijing has blamed for violence linked to Xinjiang after 9/11. Beijing has claimed that Al Qaeda directly “funded and supported” ETIM, and while the scale of Al Qaeda’s direct support of ETIM has been widely disputed, the relationship between TIP and Al Qaeda has only grown closer since, with TIP garnering more Uighur recruits from 2009 onward and Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praising Uighur contributions to the global jihad in a recent message.

Chinese suppression in Xinjiang, especially after the interethnic riots and violence in the capital, Urumqi, in July 2009, has resulted in the development of what Chinese state media has dubbed an “underground railway” of Uighurs seeking to flee the region. Some of those have ultimately found their way to Turkey and onward to Syria to fight with TIP and other jihadist groups. By 2015, TIP had established a well-documented presence on the battlefield in Syria, with the group releasing a number of videos detailing its combat role fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. (TIP does not fight alongside ISIS; its leadership has released statements in which it condemns ISIS’s activities.) TIP is increasingly showing itself to be an effective force, participating in many major fights (including the breaking of the Aleppo siege) and showing off its skill, manpower and equipment.

Historically, China has not had much economic interest in Syria, a country that prior to the civil war was more closely linked economically to its region, Iran and Russia. And more recently, China has continued to play a second-tier role. While it has had numbers of nationals join ISIS, others kidnapped and killed by the group, and the group has threatened it in some of its rhetoric, it does not appear to be much of a focus for the group. On the non-ISIS side fighting the regime, the numbers fighting alongside TIP seem to be quite substantial, whilst the group’s leadership and a core of the group continues to fight in Afghanistan. And, according to Kyrgyz authorities, this connection may have now matured into the attack that took place in late August against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.

This threat from TIP in particular is one that is therefore becoming of much greater concern for Beijing. Yet it is not clear who is focused on fighting TIP on the ground in Syria. Western powers fighting in Syria are for the most part focused on ISIS and less focused on the groups fighting against the Assad regime, like TIP. Turkey’s historical proximity to the Uighur cause has raised concerns with Beijing; Uighurs are a people whose culture and language are very close to Turkey’s, and Uighur flags and symbols are regular features during AKP rallies. Erdogan himself has expressed support for the Uighur cause, and back in 2009, in the wake of rioting in Xinjiang that led to some two hundred deaths, he referred to Chinese activity on the ground as “a sort of genocide.” Since 2012, Uighurs have been found traveling on forged Turkish passports in transit countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, raising questions of Turkish complicity. Leaked ISIS documents show a consistent flow of individuals through Kuala Lumpur, as well as other Southeast Asian routes to Turkey.

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On the second count, Beijing faces multiple challenges in the current Middle East for its “One Belt, One Road” strategy. In brief, OBOR is Beijing’s attempt to facilitate Eurasian economic connectivity through the development of a web of infrastructure and trade routes linking China with South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Key parts of this project, such as the $45 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the proposed Yiwu-Tehran high-speed rail link, according to James M. Dorsey, “illustrate the politics of its One Belt, One Road Initiative. Xi Jinping believes that he can achieve Chinese dominance through investment and interconnected infrastructure.”

The current fracturing of the Middle East as a result of the Syrian crisis, however, poses a central roadblock to China’s ability to make this vision a reality. In this context, Beijing views the United States’ approach to Syria as driven by Washington’s desire to use the civil war as a pretext to overthrow the Assad regime in order to weaken Iran’s growing power and influence in the Middle East. In contrast, Russia has been firm in its commitment to root out what it calls the “terrorist” threat there in support of the regime in Damascus, and Beijing has been impressed by the manner in which Russia’s decisive moves have had an effect that years of attrition on the battlefield failed to achieve.

So Beijing may now have arrived at the conclusion that supporting Assad and taking sides with Russia is the most viable option to effectively combat the growth of TIP. Increasing its involvement in Syria via military-to-military cooperation can also be seen in the wider context of a PLA keen to develop its overseas experience, in areas from peacekeeping to antipiracy missions to counterterrorism.

David Shambaugh eloquently argued in 2013 that China remained a “partial power” whose diplomacy “often makes it known what it is against, but rarely what it is for” and that this made its foreign policy in many regions of the world “hesitant, risk averse and narrowly self-interested.” This calculus is now changing under pressure from developments in the Middle East and Afghanistan that directly threaten core Chinese interests and are metastasizing into the very terrorist threat that China has long said it is concerned about. The response from China is relatively predictable—an outward security push. The question that remains, however, is how deeply China wishes to plunge into troubled waters to defend these interests.

Dr. Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College at Australian National University. Raffaello Pantucci is Director of the International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Image: Chinese tanks in formation at Shenyang training base in China. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

Last catch up for something that was published today in the Sunday Telegraph, this time in the wake of the Munich attack specifically but looking more broadly at the rather odd spate of semi-terror attacks that have taken place.

The piece was re-published in the Gulf News, and separately an interview with one of the newswires was picked up by the Express, spoke to the LA Times, the newswires (picked up in the Mirror) and Middle East Eye in the wake of the Nice attack, spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the current terror threat that Europe is facing, spoke to PBS about Lone Actors, spoke to CNN about the recent terror arrests in Brazil, to AFP about the recent incidents in Kazakhstan, whilst an old piece about Breivik was cited in the New York Times.

What Does a Modern Terrorist Look Like and What Motivates Them?

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There is no perfect profile of a terrorist. This is one of the main findings in the growing body of literature around terrorism. Terrorists and those who are radicalised towards extremist ideologies come in all shapes and sizes. Yet, one of the key features that appeared to distinguish terrorists from mass murderers was the fact that they were motivated more clearly by an ideology than by personal motivations. Increasingly, this line is becoming harder to draw. The last two cases to afflict Europe – the massacres in Nice and  more recently in Munich – highlight this difficulty with both cases appearing to have elements of both within them.

It is still unfortunately too early to categorically know what was going on in Nice and Munich. Whilst the early coverage around both focused on the fact that the Nice murderer was operating alone, and the speculation around the Munich shooter that he may have been motivated by some violent Islamist ideology, we are now instead seeing confusing indicators in other directions. French authorities have now arrested five others in conjunction with the Nice attack, whilst it now appears that the Munich shooter was someone who may have had a fixation with mass shootings and was possibly more inspired by Anders Behring Breivik (who exactly five years earlier murdered 77 people in Oslo in anger at the government’s immigration policies) rather than Isil.

But what both cases do appear to have in common is disturbed young men who are angry at the world around them. In both cases, stories have now emerged of potentially confused sexuality, confused religious identity, anger management issues and family disputes. Rather than being ideologically committed terrorists, they may simply using be the method of a terrorist attack – under whatever ideology – to excise personal demons.

This appears to be an increasingly common phenomenon. It is difficult to know exactly why this is happening. Certainly, the methodological approach of “lone wolf” terrorists is on the increase and groups like Isil and al Qaeda have advocated for their adherents to undertake it for some time. But in many of these cases it is not clear that the “lone wolves” in question are totally bought into the ideology they claim to be fighting for. Man Haron Monis, the Australian-Iranian who held up a coffee shop in downtown Sydney in 2014, was an only recent convert to Sunni Islam and brought the wrong flag with him to his allegedly Isil-inspired attack. Omar Mateen, the shooter who killed 50 in Orlando, apparently claimed some allegiance to al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Isil – competing Islamist organisations.

But it is possible that the amount of noise surrounding groups like Isil is drawing lost souls towards it. It is almost impossible to turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about Isil, terrorism or political violence. If you are a socially awkward individual with violent tendencies who is seeking some sort of meaning in your life, then the methodology of a “lone wolf” spree under the banner of such a group may be appealing. It will provide you with a way to punish the world around you whilst also giving meaning to your act. And given the manner in which Isil and other groups push out their omnidirectional message of violence and offer a very low bar for entry to the group, it is very easy to latch on to the ideology as you may loosely understand it and use it as an excuse to express your anger.

There is also an element of “copy catting” within such attacks. It increasingly seems as though Munich shooter Ali Sonboly may have drawn some inspiration for his attack from Anders Behring Breivik. This emulation is not new to such incidents – the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013 by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale is an attack that has generated numerous copies. The day after the attack Alexandre Dhaussy, a recent convert to Islam and known to authorities more for his petty criminal activity that than his violent Islamist links, stabbed soldier Cedric Cordier in the La Defense part of Paris. In August 2014, Brutschom Ziamani, a young man who had fallen into the orbit of violent extremists after he had been thrown out of his family home, was arrested on his way to carry out an attack emulating the Woolwich murder. In January 2015, Zack Davies started hacking at a South Asian man he saw in Tesco’s  shouting “white power” and that he was undertaking the attack in revenge for Lee Rigby. Later investigation showed he was an isolated and paranoid young man who was obsessed with the far Right and claimed to have drawn inspiration from the Jihadi John videos.

The profile of what we consider a terrorist attack is becoming increasingly hard to define. In the same way that the specifics of what our terrorists look like is becoming ever harder to grasp. Fundamentally, a terrorist is someone who is motivated by a political ideology rather than personal anger – but increasingly this line is becoming blurred. The profile of your average terrorist is increasingly becoming melted into the profile of a mass killer presenting authorities with an almost impossible mountain to climb to prevent them all.

A piece from yesterday’s Times in their regular Thunderer column looking at terrorism and aviation. Have done a bit of work on this topic in the past and of course we do not yet know what actually happened with EgyptAir, but there is an understandable suspicion in this direction. Beyond this, spoke to the Financial Times as part of their big Silk Road special supplement.

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Airport security is the terrorist’s best friend

Raffaello Pantucci

People’s complete vulnerability on an aircraft and the spectacular coverage of air crashes make them a ripe target.

On December 11, 1994 a bomb went off on Philippine Airlines Flight 434 from Cebu to Tokyo, killing one passenger. The liquid bomb had been designed by Ramzi Youssef, who was testing aviation security. His ambition was to plant around ten such devices on planes originating in Asia bound for the United States. The success of his plan hinged on the relatively low level of security at Asian airports.

Youssef’s plan never came to pass. An entrepreneurial bombmaker and terrorist, he was captured in Pakistan the following year and jailed in the US for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York. His uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was more successful with the 9/11 attacks and tried to fulfil his nephew’s ambition by dispatching two young Britons with bombs in their shoes to bring down planes on transatlantic routes. In preparing them for their mission, Osama bin Laden told aspirant bomber Saajid Badat that it would break a crucial link in the global economic chain and lead to the collapse of the United States.

Aviation continues to be the focus for terrorist networks. People’s total vulnerability on an aircraft, the essential role of aviation in connecting our world and the spectacular coverage of air crashes all make it a ripe target. Groups continue to create sophisticated new devices, such as the laptop bombs deployed against planes in Somalia that have so far failed to kill anyone except the bombers. But the real key to success for terrorists is to identify an individual working in the security system who helps slip a device or weapon on board a plane. The most likely cause of the downing of a Metrojet plane last year is the use by Islamic State of an insider at Sharm el-Sheikh airport security to plant a bomb that killed 224 Russian tourists and aircrew.

For security officials one of the greatest concerns is the marriage of these two problems — increasingly sophisticated devices and secret help on the inside. This is heightened by the fact that planes increasingly start and end their days on different continents, stopping numerous times along the way. This should multiply the number of security checks on the craft but given the number of journeys and people involved, it instead exposes them to numerous potential breaches. What’s more, the quality of security checks varies enormously from country to country.

Setting international standards for such security is complicated and expensive. The equipment is very costly. To install it globally would be a heavy burden on poor countries with competing domestic priorities. Second, there are thousands of airports connected by typical daily flight plans. A plane that starts its day in some remote city in Africa can easily end up in a European capital after stopping off somewhere in the Gulf. Security checks on such an aircraft would need to be consistent among staff with different languages and legal systems. And finally, notwithstanding all the potential tightening of safety rules, clever terrorists will continue to devise new bomb-making methods, meaning that airport security needs to be continually updated just to maintain a basic standard. When one considers the many thousands of flights that take place every day over the world, the scale of the challenge is considerable.

Yet it is worth remembering that successful terrorist incidents remain mercifully limited. While we have seen a number of civilian craft brought down recently, terrorism has been less of a factor. The Germanwings disaster last year was a pilot suicide, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014 was never resolved (but not believed to be a terrorist incident) and Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down the same year by Ukrainian rebels using Russian missiles.

The Metrojet bombing was the most recent successful terrorist attack on a plane. All of these incidents took place against the backdrop of our increasingly crowded skies, in which almost every flight passes off safely. It’s important to remember this when evaluating the response to disasters such as this week’s. An exaggerated reaction can be costly, ineffective and simply play into the hands of terrorists who want to undermine our way of life.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

My contribution in the excellent magazine Prospect to the public conversation in the UK last week about bombing Syria in the wake of this week’s parliamentary vote. It tries to explore what exactly kinetic military campaigns can do to counter terrroist oranization, using a few historical examples to outline some successes.

Will Bombing Ever Get Rid of Islamic State?

FILE - In this Monday, Dec. 31, 2001 file picture, Marines with full battle gear prepare to board transport helicopters at the U.S. military compound at Kandahar airport for a mission to an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/John Moore, File) PHOTO PACKAGE FOR USE WITH AFGHANISTAN ANNIVERSARY STORIES

This week’s vote to bomb Syria brings to mind a question: can hard power destroy terrorist groups? While it often may not be able to completely eradicate the groups’ ideologies, hard power does have a role in countering terrorist organisations. Historically there have been a number of successes in using it to degrade and even destroy them. This success comes in three main forms: decapitation, eradication or targeted applied force. Yet while all three can cause a group to be substantially degraded, the reality is that often the underlying causes and problems remain, meaning that while the group can be temporarily displaced, it is often not completely destroyed.

The first approach is decapitation, whereby a terrorist group is struck in such a way that its leadership is eliminated. A prime example of this is the Shining Path group in Peru that in 1992 was dealt a deadly blow when its leader Abimael Guzmán was captured by Peruvian authorities. While in the immediate wake of the strike the group’s violence increased, over time the group degraded and gradually faded away. Elements linked to it mutated into a criminal organisation, but the group has now largely disappeared from public concerns.

The second approach is a razed-earth military campaign, destroying the group, its territory, and membership with no mercy or quarter. An example of this is the campaign waged by the Sri Lankan government after the breakdown of talks in 2006 with the Tamil Tigers which led to an aggressive military campaign and the defeat of the group in May 2009. Using an aggressive land and air war, the Sri Lankan government slowly pushed the group back until it was cornered and ultimately collapsed. Many thousands were captured, while others were killed with a few hardcore figures managing to flee the country. But since then, while the aspiration to freedom still remains amongst some Tamils, the organisation is no longer able to assassinate state leaders and control territory.

For the rest of the piece, please go to the Prospect site

 

Catching up on some old posting again, this from a piece that was co-authored with RUSI colleague Dr Sasha Jesperson for a special publication issued for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that just took place in Malta. Thanks to Sasha for taking the lead on this one!

Calibrating a Commonwealth-wide response to Terrorism

Terrorism is a menace that resonates across the Commonwealth. From resident domestic violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or the LTTE in Sri Lanka, to groups launching cross-border attacks from neighbouring countries like Al Shabaab’s attacks in Kenya or Uganda, to lone actor attacks in Canada and Australia, terrorism can be found in some shape in most countries. Yet the reality is that when one looks at the cumulative numbers in comparison with other threats to human life, casualty counts are relatively low. This is not to dismiss the danger from terrorism, but given the current hyperventilation around ISIL (so-called Islamic State or ISIS) in particular, it is important to make sure that this is borne in mind; and furthermore, that care is taken to ensure that the expressions of violence which purport to be linked to ISIL are properly understood within their respective contexts.

Fears around terrorism are of course not baseless. Many West African countries have watched the growth of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) with concern, and there has been evidence of AQIM networks having particular influence over parts of Boko Haram. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the threat of terrorism in the West spiked – and later materialised in the form of the attacks in Bali 2002 and London in 2005, to name just two. Yet the influence of Al Qaeda, the group behind much of these fears, has not been as significant as initially feared. The group has managed a number of attacks and continues to attempt to launch plots. It has further managed to help grow off-shoots in various countries, including Commonwealth countries, highlighting the dangers of such pernicious ideologies. But it has failed to transform and take over the world in the manner which it claimed to be attempting to do.

A New Set of Fears

ISIL appears to present a new set of fears. The group has a public relations strategy that makes Al Qaeda appear archaic and detached, finding innovative ways of engaging with social media to spread their messages, recruit and radicalise new members from as far as the UK, Canada and Australia, as well as the Western Balkans and West Africa. The increase in foreign fighters travelling to join ISIL from around the world has prompted many governments to act, implementing new legislation in an attempt to stop people leaving their country of origin and punish those returning. Concerns have also been raised that the current surge of people displaced by the conflict in Syria is potentially being used as a cover by the group to send its people around the globe.

But the greatest fear arises from ISIL’s state-building aspirations and the growth of its self-declared caliphate, and all the trappings of statehood and success that accompany this. Boko Haram’s recent pledge of allegiance to ISIL, and the adoption of the new name ‘Islamic State in West Africa’, has led to increased fears across West Africa about what this means for the group’s activity and impact in the region. This is only heightened by the ISIL’s claims of expanding their caliphate into West Africa. Yet, it is unclear the degree to which there has been much back and forth between the two groups – ISIL and Boko Haram – beyond rhetoric or some exchange of tips and capability in terms of developing a more professional media output. Since the formal pledge of bayat (allegiance) by Boko Haram to ISIL, there has been a noticeable improvement in the video output by the West African group. But beyond this, there has not been much more tangible evidence of fighters or money flowing between the two groups in a widely organised fashion.

The West African Dimension

In many ways, therefore, the link between Boko Haram and ISIL is an extension of Nigeria’s existing problem with violent extremism, rather than something new. A politically-minded terrorist organisation seeking to attract attention to itself, Boko Haram saw the advantage of adopting the ISIL name to bring the bright light of publicity and attention to their cause. Nevertheless, it represents a worrying trend for other Commonwealth nations in the region. While the problem may be largely an extension of an existing issue, the decision by Boko Haram to adopt the ISIL brand reflects both an eagerness to attract more attention and a consequent push towards an even more extremely divisive brand of violent rhetoric. This aspect is something that has worrying ramifications for countries across the Commonwealth,
and particularly in West Africa.

Ghana offers a particular case study within this context. Geographically close to Nigeria, it is therefore close to the expanding local ‘caliphate’. Ghana has a sizeable Muslim population (though accurate numbers are hard to find, with reports estimating it is somewhere between 18 and 45 per cent). Throughout history Muslims and Christians in Ghana have had a good relationship, but the spread of ISIL into West Africa is raising fears of domestic radicalisation. In early October, Ghana’s Deputy Education Minister, Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, addressed Muslims in Accra about ISIL agents at Ghanaian universities seeking to recruit fighters. Two students have already been identified as joining ISIL and there are concerns among some in the international community based in Ghana that many more
have been recruited in the north of the country.

While these findings suggest that the fear of government ministers of ISIL infiltration is justified, there is a risk of over-reaction and polarisation. Northern Ghana, where the majority of Ghana’s Muslim population resides, has experienced violent clashes sparked by ethnicity, land disputes and chieftancy rights for over 20 years, as detailed by Emmanuel K Anekunabe in Modern Ghana (30 November 2009). Although this has historically not been centred on religion or a Muslim-Christian antipathy, there is a risk that fears of ISIL radicalisation may marginalise Muslim communities and create a divide, in turn driving more people into the hands of ISIL. As the brand is perceived to be more present in neighbouring countries like Nigeria, there will be a growing tendency for security forces to look for the problem; and in some extreme cases, this might have a self-fulfilling effect.

This phenomenon is most recently illustrated by Tom Parker, from the UN Counter Terrorism Centre, who highlights the strategy of terrorist groups in provoking an overreaction from affected governments, which then strengthens the cause of the terrorist group and increases support for their activities (‘It’s a Trap’, The RUSI Journal, 160(3), 2015) . Although the fear of ISIL penetration has not resulted in the draconian state responses described by Parker, there is potential for it to single out certain groups, putting them at greater risk of marginalisation. As Parker points out, “provoking an overreaction by the authorities helps to accelerate the polarisation of society by alienating potential security partners – such as moderate members of a minority community – and providing powerful support to terrorist narratives of victimhood and injustice.”

Underlying Grievances

Such a response links to the debate over the role of economic, political and social marginalisation. These forms of marginalisation have been linked to violent extremism, in many cases identified as a ‘push’ factor for radicalisation. Weiss and Hassan argue in their book on ISIL’s roots that the persistent marginalisation of the Sunni Arab majority in Iraq pushed large numbers into violent extremism (ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, 2015). Other cases in which substantial socio-economic grievances feature include northern Nigeria (where the Hausa speaking Muslim north has tended to experience political marginalisation and economic deprivation), Somalia (where Al Shabaab has been especially successful at recruiting from minority clans), and, in previous decades, Sri Lanka (where the Tamil population endured decades of marginalisation). Whether marginalisation is a necessary or sufficient factor for involvement in violent extremism is widely debated. Gupta argues that it is not a sufficient factor, that grievances need to be instrumentalised by charismatic individuals or ‘political entrepreneurs’, and social and psychological factors need to align as well (ILSA Journal of International Comparative Law, 11(3), 2005). With the case of ISIL, the use of social media and other methods to recruit members may fill that role.

This lesson is one that is not only salient in an African context. In the West, government’s choice of language has in some cases served to further strengthen the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative that radical groups feed off to draw people to themselves. By talking of ISIL as an ‘existential threat’ or a ‘nihilistic death cult’, the government rhetoric is elevating the group in importance, but also speaking in terms that are not dissimilar to those deployed by the group. Taken adjacent to language that suggests that governments need to engage in countering not only the violent extremists who help recruit people into ISIL, but also non-violent extremist groups as well, there is a danger that a large section of society is being purposely marginalised. The danger is again of a self-fulfilling prophecy where the casting of the ISIL threat as part of a wider community of extremists means a broader community feel isolated – and consequently closer to ISIL.

The lesson is a simple one. Although the threat posed by ISIL is generating concern and fear across the globe, it is essential that governments do not overreact. While ISIL does appear to present a much more far-reaching threat than their predecessors through the use of social media and ability to engage with individuals that previously appeared out of reach, to date the expansion of the caliphate is more a product of local grievances expressing themselves through the adoption of the ISIL brand (and therefore the rejection of an old order that was perceived as a failure) rather than a strong and direct connection. This is not to say that it will not expand further (and has already made worrying inroads in various places around the globe), or that it is not a substantial problem that will pose a major headache for security officials for the next decade; but rather, that governments need to be sure that in addressing the problem they are focusing on the right issues. Finally, attention needs to be paid to overreaction, something that in many cases will only make the fundamental problem worse.